It's not just that May in England is too early for serious cricket watching, it's that it's far too early, uncivilised really. All right I grant you there may be the odd early cricket riser who's been up since April, probably awoken by some unholy racket coming from India but that's hardly a worthy reference point is it??
If there are still vestiges of cherry blossom on the trees, football and rugby on the back pages and Eurovision jingles in our heads, then it's too soon. It still seems like pre-season. My visual constitution is simply not ready to digest anything more taxing than a couple of championship entrees, a few bites of limited overs stuff and a maybe an ODI snack. (I yearn to be magically transported back into that wondrous twilight zone that was
the Benson and Hedges Cup group stage. This, I will acknowledge, is probably just me though.)
Nevertheless the first repast of the Test summer will be served up this morning at Headingley, a ground admittedly more dog's dinner than royal banquet. Ridiculous "point system" aside, there is much to play for particularly for two of England's top three, Alex Hales and Nick Compton neither of whom is close to offering convincing proof that they are right persons for their positions.
Compton's issues have been discussed at great length without anyone really identifying what the problem is. Too intense? Not chummy enough? Lackadaisical in the field? An unfitting face? Apparently he's changed, relaxed, mellowed. And yet the doubts remain. Long term he seems unlikely to keep his place. In the short term, however, a remedy is available: runs, lots of them.
Hales' difficulties may be easier to qualify but more difficult to solve. He suffers from a similar problem to that which afflicted another one-day expert Jos Buttler: the inability to know whether to stick or to twist. Should he just play his natural attacking game or allow it to be tempered by the conditions, the quality of bowlers and the match situation? Ask five people and you would get five different answers. Graeme Fowler, the former England opener, referred to a similar dilemma as the "England Player Syndrome" whereby a player comes into the Test side having scored a bucket of runs in county cricket. He then immediately goes about changing the way he plays, the method that got him selected in the first place, in order to bat as he thinks a Test player should. Self-evidently it is a recipe for disaster.
Adaptation, as Darwin has shown, is the very essence of a survival strategy. At the same time the role of a Test match opener has changed (or been adapted) as well. Opening bowlers must earn respect where once it was all but given. Even thirty years ago the mere sight of Test match opening bowler with a new cherry was enough to ensure a degree of deference. Not any more. Players like Michael Slater and more recently David Warner, Virender Sehwag and Chris Gayle have redefined the job description.
Not all of these dashers make good models for Hales to follow. Gayle and Sehwag "see ball - hit ball" approach is based on enormous talent, but also aided by largely benign pitches and the prevalence of the batsman friendly Kookaburra ball. Unsurprisingly neither has enjoyed great success in England.
Warner's approach is a better one. His lightening progression from T20 specialist to Test opener without having played a single first class match was not a simply an inspired selectorial hunch. They saw that his powerful striking had its roots in a sound technique and a decent sense for the location of his off stump. His weakness, such as it is, lies in the field of "shot selection" - lofting the spinner with a man placed back, manufacturing pull shots off good length balls. A Test average of 50 suggests there are worse faults.
By far the best model for Hales is the man England have been trying to replace for almost ten years, Marcus Trescothick. Known for his pulverising cover drives and brutal slog sweeps, he was far from the traditional English Test opening batsman in the manner of Boycott, Atherton or Cook. He was, and remains, the most statuesque of openers - not through being tall and elegant but because his feet always seem cast in stone. The simple technique worked though as did the equally simple approach of playing the ball on its merit. If it was a half volley it got spanked, whether it was the first ball of the innings or the last ball of the day. Once 'in' he also latched on to the anything with width, scything it through gully and point. But when high quality bowlers put the squeeze on in helpful conditions he also had the discipline, temperament and patience to stick it out. None more so than on his Test debut against the West Indies at Old Trafford in 1995, where he went an hour without scoring, doggedly seeing off a typically testing spell from the parsimonious duo of Ambrose and Walsh. He ended up making 66, scoring more freely from the less challenging fare offered by Franklyn Rose and Mervyn Dillon.
So far Hales' has failed to show that he is the man to fill Trescothick's boots. It really doesn't seem to be a technique thing, in fact he looks a lot more solid than he did a couple of years ago when those in-duckers were causing him such problems. And yet in South Africa he fell to a succession of heavy handed but indeterminate pushes outside off stump. There are those who would suggest the fault was in his half-heartedness. Neither one thing or the other. If you going to flash.. etc. Well it's a theory and may indeed be a good approach for someone like Ben Stokes, but for an opener more discriminating judgement is required.
I have my doubts as to whether Hales has what it takes to make these improvements but nevertheless he remains a gamble worth taking for this Sri Lankan series. For the rewards of a fast start, as Trescothick and now Warner have showed, can be rich and long lasting.